Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Chicken Harvest, Round One

This all started innocently enough. We were at Michael and Margaret's house for a party Memorial Day Weekend, and Michael mentioned that these interesting meat chickens that he thinks he'd like to try this summer are much cheaper if you buy 100 or more at a time. Would I want to go in on an order? I don't think about where I might put these chickens, what I'm going to feed them, or how they're going to get dead. I think, roast chicken is an easy, healthy meal that the children love! A chicken each week, with a week off for camping and another for Thanksgiving is fifty birds? That's great. I'm in.

But really, we're in, because where to put them, what to feed them and how to get them dead are all things that I figure Earl will have some good ideas about. I know I play my cards and Earl knows I play my cards, but I also know that if I ask Earl about if has any thoughts about where we might put 50 meat chickens, he will. And he'll make it happen and I will be very grateful and he will tell me I'm easy to please. I suspect that sometime before Earl met me, someone told him that wives require lots of careful handling, have long lists of home-improvement projects, and require regular gifts of diamond jewelry. I'm not like that, of course, but I sometimes think Earl is holding his breath, waiting for me to walk past a store window and say, "Oh, honey, look!" So when I ask if we have a place to raise 50 chickens for 12 weeks, he takes care of it and think he's getting off easy.

And so, when the chickens that Michael had graciously offered to brood were ready to pick up at the beginning of August, Earl had moved the mobile coop, aka The Moop, into place. He and the bigger boys even went over and caught them and carried them back across town in cardboard boxes. We set up a play yard and a feeder and an automatic waterer and we were in business. Those chickens ate their weedy yard down to putting-green stubble and ate every bit of food scrap I set in their dish, leaving behind only the PLU stickers on citrus peels or the paper-thin rind of the watermelon. They clucked and ate and grew and got out and Cliffy caught them and put them back in. And then the roosters started to crow and even the smallest bird looked, to my x-ray imagination, like it was bigger than a supermarket chicken and it was time to think about moving them into the freezer.

We didn't actually have 50 birds. Tom and Jessica wanted some birds, too, so we ended up with 37, but one died in the first few days and another one died about a week before Harvest Day. I asked Earl once what chickens die of and he just shrugged. He can list off 100 bovine illnesses and potential causes of death, but chicken health, even to someone who has had chickens around most of his life and helped his brother with an 800-layer operation, is not a matter of interest or concern. Individual chickens just aren't valuable enough to worry about; if they start dropping en masse, then you can the vet.

We did Michael and Margaret's birds first. It was the same day as Earl's birthday party, but we figured we could make it work and I, for one, was grateful for a reason to get away from my looking-way-too-messy-to-have-a-party-in house.

I had wanted to know a little about what I was doing before I got there, so Earl took the boys' chicken puppet and demonstrated the gutting procedure. Earl had described the whole process, catching, killing, scalding, plucking, gutting, and bagging, to me and I was, and am, completely sure that killing is not for me. I would like to think that I'm biologically predisposed to protecting and nurturing life, but really, I'm just a wuss. The moment that life leaves an animal, even a fly, is horribly magic to me and I don't see as I have any business being involved in something so cosmically charged. I apparently have no problem asking Earl to do it, though, which suited us well because it turns out that Earl thinks gutting is the least desirable task. I was so grateful that I wasn't going to have to chop any chicken heads off to keep up my end of the bargain, that I decided that I was going to be a willing and efficient gutter if it killed me.

And I was lucky. It was a sunny day so I could wear sunglasses (for protection against some unknown, visually-communicative bad chicken thing that could happen to me if I looked directly into their eyes) and it was cold so I could wear layers of chicken-contact-preventing insulation. Earl found some latex gloves that went most of the way to my elbow and we were in business.

In addition to being a poultry guru and super-great guy, Michael is also a doctor and a teacher and his gutting demonstration was detailed and perfect. Within a few carcasses, I was scraping out the lungs with two fingers, blooping the gizzards into the bucket in one swift scoop, and wrapping the esophagus and trachea around my fingers and yanking them out from the back.

I was, and am, totally amazed at how easily the interior parts of a chicken, and I guess a great many animals, come out. I liked to think of one's internal organs as anchored in place, perhaps able to sway a bit, like a suspension bridge, but occupying a definite address within the body. Turns out, though, that "to spill one's guts," is an entirely apt expression--all those intestines and livers, kidneys, and stuff just come pouring out when you open their encasement, like a mixture of just-caught fish and wet spaghetti.

It probably should have seemed gross to me, but it was just so interesting . I didn't even squinch my nose, except for the time that I didn't make my lower cut deep enough, and the chicken's rectum stayed anchored so my scooping motion emptied the contents of the intestines instead of the intestines themselves. I was nicely positioned to avoid the stream and managed to keep the ickiness entirely on the outside of removable parts. I squinched, then took a deep breath and moved on to the next bird with the grateful feeling of crisis averted.

I had been prepared to be freaked out and to deal; I figure that after four rounds of childbirth, I can breathe my way through just about anything. But really, it wasn't that bad. I even flipped my sunglasses onto my head so I could see better inside the body cavities; turns out that a chicken without a head can't make potentially-fatal eye contact. I still couldn't imagine touching a chicken leg bare-handed, but I had my gloves and you know, those legs a convenient handle for moving the birds from station to station.

Even if I wanted to freak out, which Michael and Earl would have no doubt understood, Michael's neighbor, Ann, was there--just because she was interested in the process--and I felt I had to uphold an imagine of farm life that does not include chicken-induced hysteria. At one point Michael mentioned, as I was gutting away, that he was surprised I wasn't in the house with Margaret (who was the all-important babysitter of the team), after reading about my chicken issues on the blog. Ann looked a little confused to be hearing about cyber matters at the gutting table, and I quickly swept the matter aside with some tough talk about being up for anything, lest my cover be blown.

We plowed through those twenty-something birds and were on our way home by one. We did a little work on the house and I frosted the cake. Our friends all came over that night and Earl was all aglow with a house full of people wishing him happy birthday. I thought I would tell lots of stories about the chicken harvest, but there wasn't that much to tell, and I wasn't sure how much gut-spilling talk was appropriate over plates of pork vindaloo and macaroni and cheese. Still, I have to admit that even with the wonderful party, gutting chickens was the highlight of my weekend--a new skill, a tough-girl skill even, under my belt. Round two was scheduled for our house the following weekend.

Bring it on.

1 comment:

Michelle said...

Loved it. What breed would you recommend for layers? I'm partial to the bigger hens - some of the African breeds in particular - but I'm definitely open to suggestions. I'd like to get several for my little acre here for the eggs - I love eggs!